I tip my hat to BYU. They're a heckuva team to compete against. —Gonzaga coach Mark Few
LAS VEGAS — In a battle between two teams fighting for their postseason lives, BYU and Gonzaga turned in another memorable game in their budding rivalry Monday night at Orleans Arena.
Conventional wisdom said that winning the West Coast Conference tournament was the only path for the Cougars and Zags to get into the NCAA tournament.
In the end, Gonzaga kept its Big Dance hopes alive by winning its 19th consecutive WCC semifinal game with an 88-84 victory over BYU before a crowd of 8,362.
“You could tell a lot on the line by the effort both teams gave," said BYU coach Dave Rose.
"I tip my hat to BYU," said Gonzaga coach Mark Few. "They're a heckuva team to compete against."
The Zags, who are now 4-0 all-time against the Cougars in the WCC tournament, advanced to the title tilt against top-seed Saint Mary’s Tuesday night. The Gaels defeated No. 4 Pepperdine 81-66 in the first semifinal game of the night.
Kyle Wiltjer poured in a game-high 29 points, including five 3-pointers, and was one of four Gonzaga players in double figures along with Domantas Sabonis (18), Josh Perkins (17), and Eric McClellan (15). Sabonis also added 14 rebounds.
BYU’s Nick Emery scored 27 points, Kyle Collinsworth added 16 and Chase Fischer chipped in 15. Collinsworth grabbed 11 rebounds.
Emery, who struggled in the two regular-season games against the Zags, hit 10 of 19 shots, including 5 of 11 from 3-point range Monday.
What was the difference this time?
"Once I hit that first shot, it was a confidence boost," Emery said. "I thought Kyle (Collinsworth) did a good job finding me in transition. It was one games where you kind of feel it all year, it's up and down, and you've got to keep battling and know that the next shot's going in."
With the win, Gonzaga improved to 25-7 on the season while BYU dropped to 23-10.
Gonzaga center Ryan Edwards was sidelined Monday with an MCL strain in his knee so the Zags needed to keep their big men out of foul trouble.
As it turned out, BYU’s post players were the ones that found themselves saddled with fouls in the second half.
Gonzaga had the edge at the free throw line, hitting 20 of 25 from the charity stripe, compared to 12 of 15 for the Cougars.
BYU took a 50-47 lead after Emery drained a 3-pointer to open second-half scoring, but the Zags answered by scoring nine consecutive points to go up 56-50. BYU spent the rest of the game trying to catch up.
“In the first four minutes of the second half, we had a real chance to get a lead of our own," Rose said. "We missed a couple of shots and turned it over. It was a pretty physical game. They beat us on the boards and they beat us to some loose balls and that was probably the difference in the game.”
With 2:56 remaining, Wiltjer buried yet another 3-pointer to put Gonzaga ahead, 81-74. Wiltjer also managed to tip a loose ball to a teammate late that helped the Zags maintain their lead.
"No lead is safe with those guys," Few said of BYU.
Fischer hit a couple of 3-pointers in the final minutes to give BYU a shot. But in the waning seconds, the Cougars couldn’t get it done.
"Both teams were fighting for our (postseason) lives," Wiltjer said.
Gonzaga took control early in the game thanks to red-hot shooting from 3-point range. Perkins, Wiltjer and McClellan buried over the first five minutes to give the Zags a 16-8 lead.
"We gave them a bunch of open shots at first, then we settled down," Collinsworth said. "We kept battling."
But Emery started to heat up as well, hitting a couple of 3-pointers to keep the Cougars in the game.
With 7:20 left in the first half, Gonzaga seized its largest lead of the half, 36-26, on a Wiltjer hook. But BYU battled back with a 7-0 run capped by another Emery 3-pointer to make it 36-33.
The Zags extended their lead to 44-35 before an 8-0 Cougar spurt, including a 3-pointer by Zac Seljaas.
Perkins answered with a 3-pointer of his own before BYU ended the half by scoring the last four points. With the clock winding down, Collinsworth drove to the hoop, missed a layup that was dunked by Corbin Kaufusi at the buzzer to tie the game 47-47.
BYU, despite missing several layups, shot 50 percent in the first half compared to 57 percent for Gonzaga. The Zags hit 8 of 13 3-pointers over the first 20 minutes.
At halftime, Emery had 14 points and Collinsworth 10 while Wiltjer poured in 17 and Perkins added 11.